NIAMEY – Two young Frenchmen kidnapped at gunpoint by possible Al-Qaeda-linked militants from a restaurant in central Niamey have been found dead after a desert rescue operation bid by the Niger military.
One of the dead men was a former aid worker who had been due to marry a local woman next week and the other a childhood friend who had just arrived in Niamey to attend the ceremony when they were snatched late Friday.
Their local MP named them as Antoine de Leocour, who had worked in Niger, and Vincent Delory, both 25, who had grown up together on the same street in the small northern French town of Linselles.
French Defence Minister Alain Juppe confirmed the deaths after they were announced by a source in the Niger military, which had chased the kidnappers across the desert towards Mali, fighting at least one gun-battle with them.
"When they (the kidnappers) arrived at the border zone, the operation was launched, coordinated with French elements in the region, allowing (Niger's National Guard) to intercept the terrorists on the border with Mali and neutralise some of them," Juppe said in a statement.
"At the end of the operation, the lifeless bodies of the two hostages were discovered," he said.
Juppe offered his condolences to the families of the hostages, and praised the Niger government for its efforts to free the two men.
The dead men's local MP, Christian Vanneste, said: "Vincent's father... didn't want his son to go there, his son had no reason to go, except for his friend's marriage.
"Antoine worked for an NGO in Niger. That's why he was getting married in Niger, he invited his friends to the wedding," the MP added.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned "a barbarous and cowardly act."
A military source in northern Mali said that the kidnapping may have been carried out on behalf of an Al-Qaeda cell responsible for other abductions in the vast desert region spanning Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria.
"We think it is intermediaries who have kidnapped the two Frenchmen and they are trying to hand them over to fundamentalists and we are doing everything to prevent that," the source said during the search operation.
Niger government spokesman Laouali Dan Dah said earlier that Niger troops had intercepted the kidnappers before dawn on Saturday around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Mali border, but held off for fear of harming the hostages.
Sarkozy on Saturday again advised French citizens to stay out of the region until security conditions improved.
Dah Dah said it was too soon to say if the kidnappers were linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which prowls the arid and isolated zone.
The group in July killed a 78-year-old French hostage three months after he was kidnapped in Niger, in revenge for the killing of six comrades in a failed Mauritanian-French rescue raid.
In Friday's raid, staff and diners told AFP that gunmen burst into the Niamey city centre restaurant and forced the Frenchmen to follow them, brandishing assault rifles.
They were taken to a four-by-four vehicle with Benin plates in which other armed men were waiting and then driven off at speed.
Restaurant manager Soumaila Kima said De Leocour was a regular customer.
"He was dining with friends and they were talking about the wedding planned for January 15 with a woman from Niger."
Another French customer, who declined to be identified, said the kidnappers "seemed to know who they were looking for. We were seated just beside the other two but they ignored us."
A worker at the restaurant, which is owned by a former member of the French military, described the kidnapping.
"When they came in they fell on the two Frenchmen and they shouted, 'You and you, follow us'. In their rush, one of the attackers lost his turban," he said.
"The Frenchmen tried to resist but finally they pushed them into the car and they drove off quickly," he said, asking not to be named.
"I took my car and I chased them for about a kilometre, but as they were moving at great speed and with the lights out, I couldn't catch them."
The abduction echoed a raid in September on the mining town of Arlit during which five French nationals, along with a Togolese and a Madagascan were kidnapped. They are now believed to be held in Mali by AQIM.
Dan Dah said the kidnappers reportedly spoke Arabic, French and Hawza.
"It's too soon to establish similarities with the modus operandi of this latest kidnapping and that in Arlit."